Premium aged rum the next whisky

So says master blender Joy Spence, who adds that consumers now understand how aged rums are comparable to whiskies or cognacs

Premium aged rum is going to be the next whisky, says Ms Joy Spence, master blender at Jamaica's Appleton Estate.

It is no small statement, coming from Ms Spence, 66, a pioneer in the spirits industry and the first woman to hold the title of master blender.

The Jamaican joined rum brand Appleton Estate in 1982 as chief chemist and was appointed master blender in 1997.

While she acknowledges that the industry is very much a man's world, she says she has not had any difficulty working her way up the ladder to the most coveted role in any reputable spirits company.

"The only place I'm not taken seriously is at customs and immigration, where they sometimes ask for my occupation - they don't believe me," she quips.

Speaking to The Sunday Times while in Singapore for the launch of her Joy Anniversary Blend, she says that production of premium aged rums has grown significantly since she joined Appleton Estate 35 years ago. Then, it was one of only a few companies producing rum in the premium category.

"The consumer has always had the pre-conceived idea that rum was this harsh spirit that you just mix with your favourite mixer and enjoy the kick from the alcohol," she says.

But now there is greater appreciation of the spirit as it slowly sheds its reputation as the drink of swashbuckling pirates and merely a way to get high.

"The consumer now understands the sophistication of rum and how aged rums can be comparable with fine whiskies or cognacs. You can sip and enjoy it neat, just like a Scotch."

Barrel ageing in tropical Jamaica, compared with ageing in the cold highlands and lowlands of Scotland, also means that rums age three times more quickly than Scotch whisky.

"A 21-year-old rum would have to age for 63 years in Scotland to get the same kind of intensity," Ms Spence says.

She also points out that rums are significantly cheaper than whisky, which has surged in popularity and price. "Premium aged rums are just as enjoyable, so you have good quality as well as good price."

She feels that young professionals aged 25 to 40 will be the biggest drivers of this shift towards drinking rum.

The 268-year-old Appleton Estate, now owned by Italy's Gruppo Campari, is among the world's biggest-selling rum brands, together with Cuba's Havana Club and Puerto Rico's Bacardi. Appleton Estate has about 240,000 barrels of rum ageing currently.

But before it is able to catch up with the highly regulated Scotch whisky, rum has some hurdles to overcome first.

"The rum industry is not an even playing field," Ms Spence says. While Jamaican rums follow the minimum age system - where the age of the youngest rum in the blend is printed on the bottle - other rums around the world have different standards and sometimes print the average age of the rums in the blend, or even the age of the oldest rum.

"There's also the issue of adding sweeteners and other flavours to the rum and still classifying it as a pure rum," she adds. Appleton Estate rums do not contain added sugar or colouring.

Ms Spence feels that this is "unfortunate" and confusing for the consumer, but hopes that the premium aged rum "will find its day in the sun" before she retires.

The Joy Anniversary Blend is to mark her 20-year tenure as master blender and is named after her.

"Usually for anniversary blends, they use the blender's surnames, but this one has my first name on it," she says.

There are only 1,200 bottles available worldwide. Fewer than 12 bottles are available in Singapore at $380 (before GST) each. To buy, e-mail Ms Alicia Cheang at aliciaC@metadesign-group.com.

For this special blend, Ms Spence chose a rare 25-year-old pot still rum, which is representative of the pot still style of Appleton Estate rums, as well as a 35-year-old rum to mark her 35 years in the company. This results in the hallmark orange peel top note of the company's rums and a long, elegant brown sugar finish.

While she declines to reveal what other expressions she is working on, she says: "We plan to release many more limited-time offerings, so consumers can look out for something special every year."

Correction note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct e-mail address.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 02, 2017, with the headline 'Premium aged rum the next whisky'. Print Edition | Subscribe